Becoming Fatherless

Do not call any one on earth father . . .
Jesus (Matthew 23:9 Amp.)

A fascinating event occurred when Jesus was twelve years old. He had gone to Jerusalem with his parents and a group of relatives and friends to celebrate the Passover feast. Afterwards, presuming Jesus to be with other relatives in the caravan, the family began the return trip. After a day's journey they started looking for him, only to discover that he was not with the group. Frantically they returned to Jerusalem searching for him. To their amazement they found him in the temple courtyard discussing theology with the learned teachers. Mary said, "Child, why have you treated us like this? Here your father and I have been anxiously looking for you, distressed and tormented" (Luke 2:48 Amp.).

Such a parental response might be anticipated, but his reply is what fascinates me. Said Jesus with an apparent air of innocency, "How is it that ye sought me? wist ye not that I must be about my Father's business?" Luke further records, "And they understood not the saying" (Luke 2:4950). Perhaps we still don't; yet one point is evident: Jesus' tie with Joseph had already been broken. With respect to his father, he had shifted his allegiance in another direction. What his earthly father and mother thought of him was obviously insignificant in proportion to his concern with spiritual matters.

This fact is further attested in later events during his ministry. When a potential disciple asked for a delay before following so he could bury his father, Jesus responded: "Let the dead bury their dead" (Luke 9:60). Whatever the reply may have meant, it certainly placed no premium on a son's devotion to his father.

Concerning family harmony, Jesus said on another occasion: "Do you suppose that I have come to give peace upon earth? No, I say to you, but rather division . . . They will be divided father against son and son against father" (Luke 12:51, 53 Amp.).

The necessity for this shift in loyalty was firmly stated to the crowds: "If anyone comes to Me and does not hate his own father [that is, in the sense of indifference to or relative disregard for (him) in comparison with his attitude toward God] . . . he cannot be My disciple" (Luke 14:26 Amp.).

Although the subject in these events was discipleship, they also clearly imply a necessary break in the common bonds between a child and his father. If one is to be a pilgrim on the strait and narrow, he must, as Jesus said, "be about his (heavenly) Father's business" rather than busy with maintaining family ties. Plainly he instructed his disciples: "Do not call any one on earth father, for you have one Father, who is in heaven" (Matthew 23:9 Amp.).

Becoming fatherless is a second milestone event for the modern-day pilgrim on the path to fullness of life in the here and now. Before we can achieve right standing with God, we must give up earthly fathers. The emotional ties that bind a child to his parent prevent the necessary allegiance to the heavenly Father. As long as we have a father here, we cannot be free to respond to God. The serious pilgrim must release all daddies. Those intent on the kingdom of God cannot remain dependent on a father or father-substitute.

Yet how are we to understand this break with a parent? Obviously, one's biological father remains his father. The facts do not change with age, distance, or even death. The division is, I think, a spiritual one. Pilgrims must abandon having a father, not physically, but in the spiritual sense. They must give up dependence on the fathering function--this inward tie to something which daddies do and to the place they hold in the spiritual life of a person. Since the bond is spiritual, the presence or absence of the biological father in no way affects it. In fact, an abandoned or orphaned child may have stronger ties to the fatherly function than does a child who lives with his father.

How can this symbolic father, or fatherly function be defined? What is the nature of the fathering which must be abandoned by a serious pilgrim? Father-figures commonly embody three functions; they protect, provide, and direct. While mothers sustain, fathers protect. A father-image is of someone who is strong and who keeps you safe. He takes care of you, stands up for you, and fights for you. A father shields a child from the threatening outside world. While the mother's function is to feed, the father stands guard and keeps the enemies away.

Secondly, he provides for your needs. Mothers cook, but fathers bring home the bacon. They provide the food to be prepared--or, at least, money to buy the necessary food, shelter, clothing, and transportation. The fathering function includes making available the required physical materials for functioning in the world.

And finally, it is the father who traditionally gives directions. The difficult decisions (where to go, what to do, how and when to do it) are eased by good father figures. They guide and discipline. Fathers point out acceptable paths, give praise when followed, and otherwise dispense punishment. The challenges of facing the unknown are made easier by the guidance of the father.

Obviously these three functions are not always supplied by one's biological father. Often a mother is more fatherly than is a daddy. Sometimes the role is filled by a relative, a foster parent, or a minister. Later in life the function may be supplied by a lover or a spouse who protects, provides for, and directs the loved one. The point is, fathering is a function which cannot inevitably be identified with any particular person. The predominate father-figure in most cultures is one's biological daddy, but not necessarily.

In this second milestone event, the pilgrim risks giving up his father-figure, either real or imagined. He severs emotional ties with fathering, just as he cut the cord to mothering in the first milestone event. He stops looking for protection, provision, or direction from others. The quest for an authoritarian person to look up to or lean on is abandoned.

Independence replaces his earlier dependence on someone else to take care of him, to fight his battles, to protect him from the dangers and problems of life. He begins instead to stand up for himself. Energies formerly devoted to seeking and maintaining a father-image are now given to looking after his concerns personally.

He also assumes the functions of support. Instead of expecting his father to provide for him (as he did in the past), the pilgrim becomes self-supporting, no longer expecting food, clothing, shelter, money, or transportation from anyone. He pays his own way in all endeavors. After this milestone event, the pilgrim would not expect a parent, friend, spouse, or government to support him, either tangibly or spiritually.

Nor does he look to others for direction in life. He seeks no external source of discipline and guidance. Instead of seeking out another to tell him what to do or leaning on a person or group for direction, he becomes a spirit-directed individual (self-directed versus other directed) who makes his own decisions and disciplines his course without outside force. A social occasion might warrant such a pilgrim's asking, "What would you like to do?" out of concern or respect, but he would never use this as an escape from personal decisions.

Before this milestone event, father-figures are commonly held in adoration if they have performed well, or degraded to low esteem if not. But, whether looked up to or looked down upon, they have been effectively removed from the level plane of humanity in the mind of the person who has looked to them for fathering. After this event the pilgrim restores his father-figures to the human condition--no higher or lower, stronger or weaker, better or worse, than anyone else. They are granted the right to all human finitude--to be sometimes right but often wrong, to be subject to failure as well as success, sickness as well as health, sanity as well as senility, and finally, to be destined to die. In other words, they are granted all human prerogatives, without the regret, shame, or disappointment of the formally dependent, childish one. The death of a previous father-figure, though saddening, neither devastates nor diminishes the spiritual pilgrim any more than that of another intimate acquaintance. Already he is fatherless.


Get a clean mental picture of the occurrence. First, understand the event as spiritual rather than merely physical. The goal is inward independence, not tangible separation alone. Many circumstances can result in a geographical gulf (time, distance, or death) without lessening the tie to be broken in this milestone event. Conversely, one may have many contacts with a former father-figure, as family business often requires; after the dependency is left behind. When this is so, transactions with a father are made at arm's length, that is, conducted just as objectively as with any other human being.

Respect the depth of your wishes for a father. The needs for good fathering are crucial in early life. Without these functions the child could hardly exist. That everyone develops deep-seated desires for a father is very understandable. Those who have effective fathers naturally come to depend on them for protection, provision, and direction. Those with weak or absent fathers may be even more desirous of what they have missed. The resulting dependency on a wished-for father can be stronger than if he had actually existed.

The great challenges of living, coupled with the fact that we all begin as dependent children, make the wish for continual fathering both predictable and acceptable. If you want a father-for-life, consider yourself normal. The crucial point, however, is not the desire or its absence, but rather the tie, either tangible or imagined. While respecting the wish, the earnest pilgrim proceeds with all due haste to move beyond actual dependency.

Begin to free yourself. Start the countdown from obvious current dependencies on father-figures. Begin the faith-requiring process of learning to be independent of others for protection, support, and guidance. Begin, for example, to break financial ties. Stop expecting some sugar daddy to support you. If possible, stop immediately. If not, taper off as rapidly as you can.

Start supporting yourself. Provide your own food, clothing, shelter, money, and transportation. Pay your own way. Stop depending on others to buy your ticket to life. If you are in some contractual partnership, such as marriage, where someone else provides the money, see that you carry your own weight through services rendered. Sever any emotional ties maintained through constantly borrowing from others.

If you now depend on someone else to fight your battles, to stand up for you, to provide your safety, start freeing them from this responsibility. If you expect someone else to tell you what to do or to back up your decisions, stop looking for such direction or support. Instead, start taking care of yourself. Begin to defend yourself against attack, either physical or spiritual. Stop letting your spouse, children, or friends run over you. Don't look for someone else to protect you. Pilgrims provide their own defense. Learn to stand up for your rights. Liberate yourself from all oppression. Stop looking to or longing for a perpetual father to shelter you from the trials of life.

Learn to choose your own way. Let the Spirit guide your decisions, rather than continually seeking father-figures to direct your course. Practice making up your own mind. Avoid the temptation to elicit guidance from your loved ones. If advice is needed, go to a professional; pay for services rendered and avoid spiritual dependency. Do not look to the public or your friends for direction in what to feel, think, or do. Become self-directed, rather than other-directed. Give up worship of public opinion. Let what other people think be their business, instead of your god.

Assume the challenge of self-discipline. Give up use of substitute fathers for structuring your path. For example, don't expect someone else to make you stop smoking too much, lose weight, get up in the morning, work diligently, find a hobby, or go to bed at a decent hour. Furthermore, avoid the temptation to brag about your self-discipline as a means of eliciting fatherly approval. If you jog for exercise or lose two pounds, don't tell anyone. Let your secret affirm your power to discipline yourself.

If you have children of your own, either biological or emotional, remember that the goal is to free them, not to keep them dependent. Continual fathering of others, beyond the point of reasonable physical necessity, is often but the projected wish for personal fathering (we may do for others what we wish to have done for ourselves).

If you are currently providing protection, support, or guidance for another, in any except a professional relationship, consider the possibility that you are doing both them and yourself a serious disservice in the final analysis. Even if they appreciate your fathering and you enjoy giving it, you may be perpetuating a dependency which will be increasingly more difficult to break; or you may be subtly continuing your own projected wishes for a father.

In the case of your own children, your fathering responsibility is effective only if they learn to do without you. Be a good father who is diligently trying to work himself out of a job. With friends and other loved ones, carefully decline any invitations to play daddy. If you are already involved in such destructive games, hand in your resignation--gradually, if necessary, but as rapidly as possible. For instance, if you are currently playing the role of advisor for a friend who is having problems with a spouse, return to the more reasonable stance of a friend. Be with your acquaintance as you choose to, but carefully avoid pretending to be his spiritual father. If you are playing daddy for a spouse or lover, whether by choice or set-up, quit the game.

Beyond your family responsibilities, resign from all appointments (whether acquired or given), as the father of another human being. As you become fatherless, cease unnecessary fathering also. Strive for that point in personal independence where you can follow Jesus' directive, both verbally and in practice: "Do not call anyone on the earth father" (Matthew 23 :9 Amp.) .

(This chapter from (MILESTONES: Guidelines for the Way)

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